by Christopher Hughes

I woke to someone knocking at my door, rather insistently. With a soft groan from both myself and the bed, I rolled over and got both hindpaws under me, grumbling and huffing out, "Just a moment!" Stretching as best as I could to get the kinks out of my back, I pulled on a robe and walked to the door, opening it.

A 300-pound lizard stood on its hind legs on the other side of the door. Ten years ago, I would have assumed that I was still in the throes of some bizarre dream and lain back down. Now, however, that was no longer an option. Something of this must've shown in my face, because the eyed me with a degree of concern. "Are you quite alright? It is nearly noon."

I yawned and fought very hard to be coherent. "Oh, fine, Copernicus. I just didn't go to bed until well past any rational time. Pascal's nocturnality cocktails are mildly addictive, I think. I've been up every night for almost a week." I yawned again, not quite so heavily this time.

Copernicus smirked and nodded. "Well, you'll have a chance to lay off those for a while. Dan just got back from patrol this morning; he was hacked up pretty badly. Pascal found him in the greenhouse."

"Dan? Is he alright?" I knew of Dan, but I admit I didn't really know him. He kept to himself mostly, though being the only grasshopper in the Keep he probably felt a little self-conscious. I knew that feeling all too well.

Copernicus grimaced. "His right mid-arm was gone and he was bleeding heavily. Brian's patched him up; he's in no danger of dying. But his arm will require someone like Bob or Magus to fix."

I grimaced. "You're right; that's far beyond my talents. But you had reasons beyond putting me off breaking fast for coming here with this. I can only assume that you'd like me out on patrol."

The lizard nodded, and I sighed inwardly. Patrol duty is like mucking fields. It's quite necessary, and thoroughly unpleasant. All of one's attention is dedicated to not getting killed. However, I do agree that everyone should go out from time to time and keep watch. Not only does it make one more familiar with the territory and more prepared in case of another war, but it also makes one a damn sight more appreciative of the days when one isn't out on patrol.

I yawned a third time, thinking /That's it, no more of Pascal's concotions, no matter how pleasant the effects/. Finally, I felt as though with a few preparations I could face the day, and the Giantdowns. "When do you want me to leave? I haven't anything pressing so I can be out within an hour if necessary."

Copernicus nodded. "That'll be fine. See you when you get back." He turned and began walking down the hallway, his tail softly scraping on the stone floor. About ten yards down he stopped, snapped his claws and turned around. "Oh, and Chris?"

I stuck my muzzle out the door. "Yes?"

He smiled. Copernicus' smile has been called predatory by those who don't know him well. I was briefly glad that I hadn't turned into a prey animal. "Our newest family member isn't adjusting well to life here. Take Michael with you."

I rolled my eyes and nodded. "Throwing him in feet first, are we? Very well. But YOU get him equipped. I'll be at the gate in an hour."

He turned back around, his last words before disappearing around the corridor echoing slighly on the stone. "He's already waiting for you."

I huffed, half in annoyance, half in amusement, suddenly filled with a sense of having been set up.

True to form, it took me exactly half an hour longer than I'd alloted to prepare. As I approached the entrance to Metamor Keep, our newest resident looked up with an expression somewhere between boredom and irritation. "You took your time in preparing. Copernicus had me here two hours ago."

I shrugged, checking over my pack one last time. "I'd rather be overpacked than under." Inside, I smiled. Michael appeared to have gotten over his initial shock at seeing people of every species and age being treated with equanimity. His reaction to me was what I'd expect it to have been to anyone he considered normal. "I take it, then, that you're all ready to go?"

He nodded, and the two of us proceeded out of the keep into the Giantdowns. Jack had requested we start with the same area in which Dan was attacked. Partially to see if there were any further signs of lutins in the area, partially to try to recover some of the lost equipment. I told him twice that lutins aren't known for leaving behind anything useful unless they're all dead, but Jack can be as stubborn as a... well, more stubborn than I. As we walked, I told Michael all of this. His expression was dour.

"So, they're sending us up to where one of th.. one of us got attacked? Do they want us to get slaughtered?"

I sighed and shook my head. "No, Michael. Jack wants us to try to find some of the lost provisions, and Copernicus I'm sure wants to know if and where the Lutin encampments are. It makes obliterating them easier. If we find a large enough group of them in a semi-permanent location, we send out a group of a dozen or so to clean them out. Lutins are like oversized parasites. If you don't kill them all, they multiply back to their original numbers soon enough."

He didn't answer that, instead turning back to scan the horizon for any sign of life or movement other than the two of us. "How long will it take to reach that spot? And how long will we be out here?"

I looked up at the sky; we'd made decent time, despite having started late. "We should reach that area by nightfall, so we'll camp there and split watches. Normally they don't like sending out more than one at a time; the war parties are an exception, but that takes up a lot of resources so we only do that when we're sure of good bounty."

He stopped moving and looked at me incredulously. "They expect us to stay out here overnight? In the middle of this waste?"

I folded my paws over my chest. This was not going well. "No, Michael. They expected us to walk out there and then back, all at once without any rest time. Whereupon the odds of being beset by a raid would surely increase and our own defenses would be weakened by fatigue." I rolled my eyes. "Copernicus and Jack both know we'll be gone overnight, and I'm not without my own talents. We will not be isolated should things go badly." I then turned and continued my walk. "Come. We've got a long way to go before nightfall." My strides away left no room for a reply.

Patrol duty is boring. There simply is no other word for it. Most of your attention is focused on the surrounding area, trying to ensure that nothing has snuck up on you and is waiting around the next bend to carve into you and feast upon your entrails. What little willpower can be mustered away from this task is normally set upon keeping an eye on one's footing and trying to learn the terrain in case a fight does break out and you're forced into a hole. Normally in a forced march the mind wanders while the body runs on its own. With this much concentration, however, it's impossible to reach that pleasant semi-conscious state. The time drags on. And on. And on. And on.

Having two people on patrol is even worse. When you're alone, there is no one to whom you can talk and so the desire to make conversation is missing. With another person present, the urge to fill the silence with something other than the sounds of nature is overwhelming. Since that would break both of your concentrations, however, you say nothing. And so this silence which started as simply part of the job grows into an uncomfortable barrier between the two of you, and by the time you stop for rest both of you are irritable, tired, and frustrated.

This is exactly the state in which we found ourselves by nightfall. I took the time to build a fire and learned that Michael was a passing cook. Or perhaps by then I would have even eaten rocks with honey. All I know is that he did something with the provisions I'd brought that made them better than I'd remembered from the last trip, and I commented as much to him as we ate.

He shrugged. "I grew up on a farm. I learned how to cook there." He looked around to the edge of the area we'd selected to camp, a clearing with a large rockface on one side, good for preventing anyone or anything from getting behind us. The fire made the shadows dance in a way that might've been comforting from a fireplace at the keep, but here looked too much like movement for my pleasure. I waited for a moment for him to continue his story, but he remained closed-lipped. Alright, I thought. Time to begin bringing him into the fold.

"Michael," I started again, rather abruptly. "How proceeds your change?" I kept my expression carefully neutral, but I watched him for any reactions.

He sighed, and his voice held an edge of bitterness when he spoke. "I've no idea. As of yet, I don't even know what I'm becoming. I went to that porcupine to see if she could tell me, but.." His voice stopped again, clearly embarrassed at the incident. I'd heard about it from Pascal, but I hadn't seen its effects. Actually, I'd heard about it from a great many people, but I felt it impolite to say as much. I was trying to make him feel more welcome, not alienate him further.

I waved a paw dismissively. "She meant no harm. And to hear her tell it, she did try to stop you but didn't warn you in time. I know she felt upset about it." I stopped and raised one paw to my muzzle, scratching my chin. "Well, perhaps I can ascertain your phenotype." His expression kinked up into one of puzzlement. "I might be able to tell what you are," I said quickly, mentally cursing myself for not being more clear. Eschew obfuscation, idiot. "Mind you taking off your tunic?"

He shrugged and turned around, baring his now grey-furred back to me. I rose and walked over, examining his fur. In the firelight, it shone orange-grey, and ruffled in the night breeze. "Grey. Almost silver. Wolf perhaps, or some species of fox. There aren't many animals with that colouration. Certainly not that have fur as long as yours." An idea came to me, and I put the tips of my claws on the back of his neck, slowly drawing them down through his fur, just letting the tips touch his fell. I scratched the length of his spine where it was covered in fur, then proceeded back up and over his shoulders. I was rewarded for my actions with a loud low growl of contentment, which pleased me and startled him enough to cause him to jerk away from my paw.

"What brought that about?" His voice was a trifle strained. He quickly shrugged on tunic and sat with his back to the rock, facing the fire.

I smirked, seeing his reaction, and sat next to him, facing out away from the clearing. "Your body is changing. New sensations you may find pleasurable that you didn't before. Or painful for the same reason. Wanderer can no longer eat some confections because of their toxicity to his canine nature. My vision is now only just barely correctable, and I've lost all of my colour sight. However, my hearing and smell are just this side of miraculous. All in all, I'm pleased with my outcome."

His head snapped up from the fire. "Pleased?" From his voice, you might've thought I'd shot him with a crossbow. In the kidney. "Pleased? You've turned into an animal and you're pleased with this?"

I looked at him sternly and nodded. "Yes. Pleased. Prior to my home at Metamor, I was something of a social misfit. I have a home now, a true home, and a family. Tell me, Michael, have you anyone outside the keep to whom you would have returned, had you not been touched by its ways?"

The look he gave me was one of pure malice and I knew I'd touched a nerve. He stared back into the fire, and he spoke in a distant monotone. "No. The Plague took them from me. Of my father I have only dim memory. He was drafted. He never came home."

I moved over next to him and put a paw on his knee. "I am sorry for that." While my voice is normally rough, I tried to project as much compassion as possible.

He raised his eyes from the fire to mine. "How did you know?"

I smiled, or as close as I can come to one with my muzzle. "Few people choose the life of a living shield if they have anyone to whom they return at night. Fewer still accept that job with a group that roams the realms."

He nodded, mind clearly not on me. "And you? Did you leave anyone behind when you came to this place?"

I shook my head. "As I said, I was something of a social misfit. My father is an alchemist of little renown but great wealth. My mother is a healer. They never knew quite what to do with me, and I never really knew what to do with myself, so when I came of age they gave me a relatively large sum and sent me to a school of magery. I'd always claimed I'd wanted to be a spellcaster. I left shortly thereafter destitute and with only the basest cantrips at my disposal. I tried my hand at alchemy and met with slightly better success but the drudgework bored me and I was nearing a point at which I'd've had to apprentice to continue my studies, so I left."

He studied me for a moment. "So why came you here?"

I smiled, remembering. "Metamor Keep sits on the edge of the known lands, the well-travelled areas, and the breeding pit of dark magic. The arcane has always fascinated me, despite my relatively meagre talents with it. I came to study. I'd been at the keep a scant month when the siege hit. By the time it was over, there was no place else to go."

"You could leave, could you not? What force holds me here?"

"None save the knowledge that should most anyone in the Midlands see you alone, you would most likely be strung up with your own entrails as a warning to any 'foul beast from the Giantdowns' that dares to wander through. Those who came away with the opposite gender, or as striplings, can for the most part proceed unnoticed through the Midlands. We who became as 'hulking beasts,' as you put it, have no such option."

He grimaced. "I'm sorry. This is all so foreign to me. I've gone from a guard to an outcast in under a tenday."

"You're only an outcast so long as you think of your home as someplace other than Metamor Keep. You're a part of our family now. You can choose to stay outside it or you can choose to be a part of it. If you stay on the edges, you'll probably find frustration and irritation at being forced to stay with freaks and animals. If you accept us, I think you'll find that we can be quite warm and welcoming. I knew no-one when I first arrived, but within a month of the change I was on a first-name basis with many of the inhabitants. We're not all perfect, and we do have our disagreements, but common circumstance has pulled us together in a way I'd never seen outside of the keep, even in my time at the universities."

He sighed. "But what do I idon? For that matter, what do you do there? You said there were more potent spellcasters. What contribution is yours, then?"

"Mine?" He nodded. "Fox is our librarian, but he knows where the books themselves are. My service is knowing where the knowledge is. I like to think that if someone comes to me with a question, I can either give that person the answer or a clue as to the answer's location. I'm also a tutor in my spare time, passing on what skills I do have to those better-suited to use them than I. I know enough alchemy to be a hazard to myself, and I can throw a few minor spells and enchantments. And some that aren't so minor, if I have time and materials."

He nodded again. "Then what do you suggest I do?"

I smiled. "If you want my advice, approach Donny when you return and offer to lend a paw in his kitchen. I know not what you did to my hiking rations but I've not tasted better on the road before. I'd like to see what you can do with a full spice rack at your disposal."

He smiled and yawned. His own exhaustion was infectious and I yawned myself. Suddenly faced with the unpleasant realisation that one of us was likely to miss watch, I sighed. "Damn. I didn't want to do this."

Michael looked at me curiously. "Do what?"

I rose and rummaged in my pack for a vial. Pulling it out, he saw the odd yellow-green colour and raised one eyebrow. "You actually intend to drink that?"

I nodded. "Pascal says the colour is quite by accident. Unlike her own," I added with a laugh. I unstoppered the vial and drank the oddly-sweet potion. "And to think this morning I was swearing off of them because of their side effects. You sleep, Michael. That will be enough to keep me awake." I sat by the fire and waited for him to curl up on his bedroll, then stirred the fire. The silence returned then, disturbed only by the cracking of the fire and, some minutes later, Michael's snores.

As the sun rose, I could feel the effects of Pascal's concotion wearing off. I stood, stirred the fire to liven it, and nudged Michael with my hindpaw. As any good soldier did, he was sitting up in moments, rubbing his eyes and apparently wide awake. He stretched and cursed. "Do the Lutins come in the night and plant sharp rocks under every bedroll to ruin sleep?"

I smirked. "I've heard that complaint ofttimes before. No one entered the camp during the night, so any rocks you found were your own doing."

He chuckled, and I smiled inwardly. How quickly things change, I thought. At least he seems more at ease with me. How if only it spreads to the rest of the keep. Again, Michael worked some sort of miracle with our rations while I packed up my supplies. We broke fast, and then put out the fire. When we were relatively certain our campsite looked as it did when we arrived, plus the cold firepit, we headed out to examine the area.

After three hours, no sign of either the Lutins nor the equipment had evidenced itself, though we did find the site of the battle. Even Dan's arm was missing, which suggested that it probably found its way into some Lutin's stew. I shuddered slightly at that, but said nothing of my suspicions. However, it did make me wonder what they ate when outsiders became scarce. Quickly I dismissed that thought. I may be inquisitive, but I'm not suicidal.

When five hours had passed and the area was, to our knowledge, clear of any sign of those who attacked, we made our way back to the keep. Again, the silence rose between us, but this time it was different. Before it held the unpleasant overtones of two people who know not what to say to each other. Now, it was merely the silence of two people between whom no words need to be exchanged. Perhaps in time it might become more than that, I thought, but for now it was a start.

Dusk was just beginning to settle when we passed within the gates. Copernicus was waiting for us to return. "Did you find anything?"

Michael shook his head. "Naught but a few blood smears and a home." He looked at me and winked. "You'll pardon me, Coop, but I'd like to stow my sword before having a long talk with Donny ere he shuts down the Mule for the night." With that, he nodded to the lizardman and turned, walking in the direction of his quarters.

Copernicus raised an eyebrow at Michael's retreating back and then looked at me strangely. "A home? He certainly has adapted on short notice. What did you tell him?"

I yawned. "Only that he has a way with spices. Ask him, if you're curious." I fought off another yawn. "That's it. Pascal's potions are now off-limits to this bear, regardless of what she says is in them. If you'll excuse me, I hear a bed calling my name. And it's my own." I walked past him towards my home inside the keep, leaving him standing there with his eyebrows raised.

I made it as far as my living room before passing out.